Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Model Works

Sketching from nature and studying acclaimed works of the past and present constituted the two key methods of acquiring painting skills for both nihonga and seiyōga painters in early twentieth-century Japan (Fujishima 2004, 221-222). Exhibition jurors, established artists, and authors of advice books emphasized that aspiring artists should study masterpieces through copying. At the same time, they suggested that each artist should aim to develop their own original expression.

Copying has had an important place within the artistic training both in European academy and in Japan. During the Tokugawa period, artists of the Kano school used to copy so-called funpon (model paintings). Funpon were wide-ranging collections of images that reproduced original paintings faithfully or in rough sketches in smaller size. They were zealously guarded and enabled transmission of artistic styles and subject matter within the workshop (Lippit 2012, 238-239; Jordan and Weston 2003). 

By the early twentieth century, looking at original paintings and experiencing their size, color, and texture required access to private collections or visiting art exhibitions. The Tokyo School of Fine Arts and the Japan Art Association (Nihon bijutsu kyōkai) frequently included “model works” (sankōhin, literally “objects for reference”) in their exhibitions for study purposes. Furthermore, with the launch of the Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition in 1907 in Tokyo, artists in Japan began voicing even stronger demands for establishment of a modern art museum. By canonizing recent art, this museum would also function as a source of model works.

Similarly, Japanese settler-artists in Taiwan and colonial bureaucrats believed that representative examples of modern Japanese art could guide local artists and educate the art public. Therefore, the first Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition was accompanied by a special exhibition of over twenty nihonga and oil paintings on loan from Tokyo as model works (the Korea Fine Arts Exhibition also featured Japanese modern art as models).

Painter, art teacher, and long-term resident of Taiwan, Ishikawa Kin’ichirō (1871-1945), described his emotional experience of viewing these works at the first official salon in Taiwan:

The model works displayed are an oasis of art for art connoisseurs and the study of [art]. Having come in contact with these fine works, I feel that art by great masters draws you in without effort, just like that, quietly, like the gentle flow of water. It feels like being completely embraced by serenity (Ishikawa 1927).

Some model works, such as Araki Jippo's painting, left such a lasting impression that critics recalled it years later in their reviews (Arai 1935). Since it is impossible to identify Araki's painting which traveled to Taiwan in 1927, we can only speculate how the technical virtuosity of this renowned bird-and-flower salon artist must have appealed to contemporary viewers.

In the subsequent salons, the organizers abandoned the practice of organizing a special display of models perhaps due to lack of funding. Instead, they encouraged the invited jurors from Japan to bring their own works for the purpose of displaying them as model works. The Japanese language press in Taiwan often advertised in advance the subject matter and size of the jurors’ works and, upon the exhibition’s opening, reproduced and reviewed them in detail. On average, each juror would bring just one or two works. For example, Araki Jippo, who traveled to Taiwan as a juror for the 1935 salon, bought this work with him.

Japanese settler-artists expected much from the jurors' works. They repeatedly stated how difficult it was to see good paintings on the island and requested that jurors visiting from Japan bring their most representative and stimulating works with them. In his touching review of Umehara Ryūzaburō’s Sakurajima, on view at the Taipei salon in 1935, painter Tateishi Tetsuomi (1905-1980) recalled the sadness he had felt not being able to see the acclaimed work of his former teacher when it was first displayed in Tokyo at the Kokuga exhibition and the joy of finally having the opportunity to view the painting in person in Taipei (Tateishi 1935). Even though, in total, only a small number of model works from Japan were displayed at the Taipei salon, Japanese settler-artists attached great importance to them.

What is more, Japanese settler-artists and critics in Taiwan often complained about the jurors' model works in the press. The most often repeated criticism was that the work was small, not representative of the artist’s oeuvre, lacking educational merits, or that it could guide only beginners and would leave true art lovers dissatisfied. By and large, the artists did not complain about the specific styles or subject matter represented in the jurors' works. They just desired to see masterpieces rather than average paintings that the juror in question happened to have had on hand in his atelier as he was embarking on his trip to Taiwan (yes, all jurors at the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition invited from Japan were male). Some suspected, and rightly so, that the Japanese jurors did not take the Taiwanese art world seriously (Nagayama 1933, 124.). The very idea itself of learning by looking at good models was was not contested.

Also, education through models was conducted on a more local level. For example, some paintings by artists from the Tainan Prefecture which had previously been on display at the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition were on view as models at the Tainan Prefecture Schools Art Exhibition in 1934 (“Taihoku tsūshin” 1934, 127).

The use of Japanese modern paintings as model works at the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition reinforced a worldview according to which the geographic distance between the metropole and the colony equaled a gap in artistic progress. Moreover, it gestured to the desire of molding the future art in Taiwan on artistic models from Japan and with Japanese settler artists as major protagonists. Inasmuch as many jurors and salon organizers in Taiwan continuously championed so-called “local color” in works on display, suggesting that art in Taiwan should depict local subject matter and posses native characteristics, the implicit assumption was that such art should be simultaneously “Japanized” and able to speak to imperial audiences. Indeed, many paintings at the Taiwan salon depicted Taiwan's landscapes and customs considered exotic from the colonizer's viewpoint, especially the aborigine population of the island. With time, some art critics in Taiwan began to question these demands for local color as vague (Liao 2002, 202). Settler-artist and juror Shiotsuki Tōhō suggested that since the distance between Japan and Taiwan had shrunk so much, and since the young artists in Taiwan studied past and present art from all over the world, it would be impossible to expect them to produce artworks as if Taiwan were in isolation. He did, however, hope that the specific geographic conditions of the island would contribute to the eventual emergence of a distinct art (Shiotsuki 2001 [1934], 281).

The popularity of the local color discourse in the 1930s reflected a larger shift within the empire towards an understanding of Japan as a nation of diverse cultural regions. Historian Kate McDonald describes it as geography of cultural pluralism. She suggests that it came up in response to the anti-colonial movements and functioned as a way to sustain the hierarchy between the metropole and the colonies (McDonald 2017, 17, 85, 159).

The question of local color in the art of colonial Korea and Taiwan has been widely debated and studied. Recently, scholars have turned to highlighting the inherent contradictions of this discourse (Lin 2008, 146; see also Kwon 2015).

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